Godfather of Harlem Series Review and Recap: Season 1 Episodes 1 to 4
A quick recap/review of the first four episodes of the Forest Whitaker-starring series that is currently streaming episodically on Hotstar
(Some spoilers ahead for Godfather of Harlem S1E1 to S1E4)
Four episodes of the first season of the new gangster drama series, Godfather of Harlem, are now available on Hotstar in India, with new episodes premiering every Monday morning. The Forest Whitaker-fronted series is set in 1960s New York City, specifically Harlem, and revolves around real-life gangster Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson and his efforts to regain control of his turf after he returns from serving a 10-year sentence in Alcatraz. Other key players who feature in the main cast include historical figures like Malcom X (Nigél Thatch) and Rev Adam Clayton Powell Jr (Giancarlo Esposito), with whom Bumpy forms alliances to push back against the Italian mobsters who have taken over Harlem in his absence. Malcom X and Rev Powell, meanwhile, have their own agendas — one to further the cause of the Nation of Islam (the political and religious movement for the betterment of Black Americans) and the other for his own personal political gains.
In addition to this, we also get to see Bumpy's personal life and how he and his wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) bring up Bumpy's granddaughter, Margaret as their own child because her mother, Elise, is a heroine addict. Heroine plays a big role in the series as well, being the prime commodity moved by the various mobs. And being what keeps the black and other minority communities subjugated, according to Malcom X. Bumpy has to play the game and push heroine as well if he wants to regain ground in Harlem, but at the same time is conflicted because he sees what the drugs are doing to his community, and more particularly to his own daughter, Elise. On the other hand, his wife Mayme runs a youth association for the upliftment of the Harlem youth, and gets funding for this from Rev Powell, who in turn is assisted in his political endeavours by Bumpy.
The main antagonist of Godfather of Harlem is Vincent "The Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio), and ex-boxer (hence the title) turned mafia man, who has taken over Harlem while Bumpy was serving his decade-long prison term for a mistake made by the Italians. He is resistant at first but is forced to slowly yield to Bumpy thanks to the latter's clever manoeuvring. One of the ways Bumpy accomplishes this is through the means of Chin's daughter Stella, who has fallen in love with a black singer by the name of Teddy Greene. This latter's mother is known to Mayme and she asks Bumpy for help to save Teddy from the "evil white woman's clutches." Chin, on the other hand, is mortified that his daughter is seeing a black man, this being a time when black people were still seen as something less (the show is filled with the N-word which could have been toned down, perhaps — the intention is likely to stay true to the period and to impress on us how things were, but still). Bumpy sees a way to turn this situation with Stella to his advantage and slowly starts regaining control of Harlem. Chin, however, isn't one to give up easily and he keeps trying to hit back at Bumpy in covert ways (he cannot directly attack Bumpy who has the protection of the Italian mob families for his loyalty in not giving them up and taking the fall for them earlier).
The story is gripping and moves along at a fast clip. The actors are all exceptional — Whitaker predictably knocks it out of the park — and it's refreshing to see a primarily black and other minority-filled cast. The period setting is taken full advantage of with references to several key figures and events from that period, such as the rise of James Brown, Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, Malcom X's own ascension, etc. The music in Godfather of Harlem is wonderful throughout. The opening credit sequence in particular is graced by an excellent song called Just In Case (featuring none other than DMX), and it is so good that I not only never skip past it, but even go out of my way to rewind and watch/listen again at times.
The morality of the show is a bit iffy largely because of who the protagonist is. When Bumpy wins a particular move against Chin and we're shown the drugs flowing through the hands of his associates, it's hard to decide if we're to cheer for Bumpy or feel bad for the people of Harlem. One thing I found decidedly problematic is Godfather of Harlem's handling of rape. There's a rape that happens in episode 3. This scene and the fallout both did not sit right with me. There's also a character who is used as a interrogation/punishment device by means of rape and the treatment of this character and these scenes are rather appalling.
Malcom X is the voice of reason for a lot of the show and is its hero in so far as there is one. If nothing else, this show has made me curious about him and his background, which is rather fascinating. For him, the performances, the music, and the overall smart craft, I'll keep watching. And from next week, I'll bring you recaps of the individual episodes. So watch this space, and let's us watch this show together!
(Godfather of Harlem is currently streaming episodically, every Monday, on Hotstar in India)